Friday, January 27, 2012

Sorry state of Indian judiciary – Bombay HC settles oldest 1986 criminal case

A 28 year old case – the oldest criminal case pending in the Bombay High Court – was finally settled by a division bench of the court a few days back. It’s a shocking story of how justice is routinely delayed and hence denied in our country – and yet it hardly arouses any major angst any longer. On this 63rd Republic day, it would be appropriate if the powers that be resolved to set at least this problem right….

In this regard, the report of the 230th Law Commission of India on the subject of judicial reforms makes for interesting reading. The report was submitted to the Union Minister of Law and Justice in August 2009. Some of the facts that the report reveals are truly shocking:

  • There are some 3 million cases pending in just the 21 High Courts of the country. There are a further 26 million cases pending in the lower courts.
  • One Delhi HC judge has calculated that it would take 464 years with the present strength of judges in that court to settle off all arrears.
  • The Supreme Court has said that we need 5 times more number of judges in the apex court than we have at present. We also need many more benches.

In spite of the large number of cases pending in the lower cases, that’s not where most of the delay happens. Even in this 28-year old specific case, the actual incident (the murder) happened in February1984 and the sessions court pronounced the verdict in December 1985 acquitting all the accused for lack of evidence. Thereafter, the state decided to challenge the verdict in the High Court in 1986. It’s taken the HC so much time to basically reiterate what the sessions court had said back then. That the guilt could not be proven and the accused were free to go. Even if the acquitted suspects were not in fact innocent, how possibly could the High Court take a call on this subject after so many years? It’s quite obvious that cases delayed so much would lead to a benefit of doubt being given to the accused.

Not being able to provide speedy justice leads to other compromises as well. For example, one of the biggest needs of the country is to have electoral reforms. One of the reforms needed the most is to disallow politicians with pending criminal cases from standing for elections. But for this to happen, it is necessary that cases are disposed off quickly. If they aren’t, then bogus cases could get filed against candidates knowing that the judgment would take years to come. In fact, it could become part of a political strategy – neutralizing strong candidates by lodging frivolous charges against good candidates.

Delayed justice also creates another shameful situation we see in our country – millions of undertrials languishing in the jails waiting for justice to be delivered. In many cases, when the judgment is finally delivered, it is found that the accused are not guilty. Yet the accused have wasted many many years of their life in jail. We saw this happen recently in Gujarat when nearly 90 Muslims rounded up after the Godhra riots were acquitted after having stayed 9 years in jail. Who will return these years of their life back to them?. Clearly, a speedy trial is not only required to give quick justice, it is also an integral part of the fundamental right of life and personal liberty as envisaged in article 21 of the Constitution (here, I am quoting from the Law Commission’s report).

The Law Commission’s report makes some interesting suggestions 1) There must be full utilization of the working hours of the court. Judges must be punctual; lawyers must not seek adjudication unless absolutely necessary 2) Similar cases should be clubbed together using technology and a common judgment should help close all of them. Such cases should be prioritized 3) Judges must pronounce judgments within a reasonable period of time 4) Vacation of judges in the higher courts must be curtailed by 10-15 days 5) Max time for arguments given to a lawyer should be less than one hour and thirty minutes 6) Judgments should be clear and decisive and free from ambiguity 7) Lawyers must not resort to strikes. 8) Retirement age of High Court judges should be increased from 62 years to 65 years and for Supreme Court judges from 65 to 68 years 9) We need many more Fast Track courts, Special courts, Lok Adalats and Gram Nyayalayas to reduce the inflow of cases into the main judicial system. Many of these suggestions are common sensical – and yet they have not be implemented – embroiled as they are in political and bureaucratic wranglings.

For speedy justice, we also need police reforms. We need the police work faster; we also need them to work with far higher savvy. Judges complain that the quality of police work is so shoddy that valuable pieces of evidence are lost in the process of investigation. The time taken is also so long that investigation quality suffers. In many cases, witnesses turn hostile as the accused get time to use their muscle and money power on the witnesses. Poor quality of investigation also leads to more appeals, as judgments fails to satisfy the two parties. All this needs to change for justice to be delivered quickly. But again, police reforms have been gathering dust for long.

The real truth is that on this 63rd Republic day, we have a lot to be ashamed of. Just as we have a lot to be proud of. One of the things that we must work on quickly is judicial reforms. Currently, judicial reforms are being discussed in the context of judicial corruption. I am not even talking about that. I think it’s equally important for judicial decision making to be speeded up. There is an urgent need for all people concerned with the judicial system – the Government, the lawyers and the Judiciary itself – to figure out a way to speed up justice.

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